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Holy War: How Vasco da Gama's Epic Voyages Turned the Tide in a Centuries-Old Clash of Civilizations Hardcover – September 6, 2011

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Editorial Reviews


“Lively and ambitious . . . Cliff has a novelist’s gift for depicting character . . . he brings 16th century Portugal in all its splendor and squalor pungently to life.” (Eric Ormsby, New York Times Book Review)

“Epic . . . a compelling adventure tale, told by Cliff with the right mix of sweep and detail.” (BookPage)

“Readers who enjoy a yeasty narrative by a skilled storyteller will mark this book as one of their favorites of the year.” (Cleveland Plain Dealer)

“Nigel Cliff’s Holy War is one of the most readable, engaging, and provoking books of the season, hands down . . . Cliff . . . writes with considerable energy, humor and narrative skill.” (Kansas City Star)

“A fresh take on the history of the age of discovery . . . Cliff opens new vistas on much-explored territory.” (Publishers Weekly)

“A useful addition to a continuing lively discussion of Christianity and Islam, situated both in respect of religions and culture, as well as empires and trade.” (Kirkus)

“Cliff tells an often thrilling tale of adventure . . . He effectively restores the luster of da Gama’s achievement and provocatively reassesses the goals and significance of his expedition.” (Booklist)

“A story told with great flair and serious scholarship.” (James Eckardt, The Nation)

“A stirringly epic book…a thrilling narrative…This is broad-brush history, but it is accurate, and enlivened by splendid spots of color.” (Sunday Times (London))

From the Back Cover

A sweeping historical epic and a radical new interpretation of Vasco da Gama’s groundbreaking voyages, seen as a turning point in the struggle between Christianity and Islam

In 1498 a young captain sailed from Portugal, circumnavigated Africa, crossed the Indian Ocean, and discovered the sea route to the Indies and, with it, access to the fabled wealth of the East. It was the longest voyage known to history. The little ships were pushed beyond their limits, and their crews were racked by storms and devastated by disease. However, their greatest enemy was neither nature nor even the sheer dread of venturing into unknown worlds that existed on maps populated by coiled, toothy sea monsters. With bloodred Crusader crosses emblazoned on their sails, the explorers arrived in the heart of the Muslim East at a time when the old hostilities between Christianity and Islam had risen to a new level of intensity. In two voyages that spanned six years, Vasco da Gama would fight a running sea battle that would ultimately change the fate of three continents.

An epic tale of spies, intrigue, and treachery; of bravado, brinkmanship, and confused and often comical collisions between cultures encountering one another for the first time; Holy War also offers a surprising new interpretation of the broad sweep of history. Identifying Vasco da Gama’s arrival in the East as a turning point in the centuries-old struggle between Islam and Christianity—one that continues to shape our world—Holy War reveals the unexpected truth that both Vasco da Gama and his archrival, Christopher Columbus, set sail with the clear purpose of launching a Crusade whose objective was to reach the Indies; seize control of its markets in spices, silks, and precious gems from Muslim traders; and claim for Portugal or Spain, respectively, all the territories they discovered. Vasco da Gama triumphed in his mission and drew a dividing line between the Muslim and Christian eras of history—what we in the West call the medieval and the modern ages. Now that the world is once again tipping back East, Holy War offers a key to understanding age-old religious and cultural rivalries resurgent today.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 560 pages
  • Publisher: Harper (September 6, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0061735124
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061735127
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.6 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (50 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #461,962 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Nigel Cliff is a historian, biographer, and critic. He was educated at Oxford University, where he was awarded the Beddington Prize for English Literature. He is a former theater and film critic for the London Times and a contributor to The Economist and other publications. His first book, The Shakespeare Riots, was a finalist for the National Award for Arts Writing and was selected as one of the best nonfiction books of 2007 by the Washington Post. He lives in London with his wife, the ballerina Viviana Durante, and their son.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

46 of 48 people found the following review helpful By DaLaoHu on October 29, 2011
Format: Kindle Edition
This is history at its best and history at its worst. At its best because it takes one subject (Vasco da Gama's pioneering voyage around Africa to the coast of India) and tries to place it within the broader scope of world history. This is something you rarely encounter in history texts, which typically focus upon their one particular subject as if it happened within an isolation tank. Yes, it's true that the Crusades were much more than just some medieval joust between Richard the Lion-Hearted and Saladin, but raged on in one form or another for well over half a millenium and are still a significant rallying point in the Mideast to this day. And this book should be applauded for taking the voyages of discovery, and in particular the voyage of da Gama, and placing it within the context of those continuing Crusades. Because a good part of what motivated the Portuguese crown to undertake these voyages was indeed a desire to connect with a mythical/legendary Christian kingdom in either Africa or India (or both) and unite with them to strike a blow against Islam. [Immediately prior to reading this book, and purely by chance, I had just finished reading a collection of academic papers concerning the legend of Prester John, and in truth there was an embassy from Ethiopia to Portugal which reignited this legend and was an important spur to the initiation of the voyages down the coast of Africa).

That said, however, I must now turn to the worst. Although the author must be applauded for placing da Gama's voyage within the context of world history, he must at the same time be derided for trying to force-fit it into only one particular aspect of that world history.
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63 of 74 people found the following review helpful By Caddis Nymph, Western Massachusetts on September 19, 2011
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
How many movies and television specials, not to mention books, have we had about the kings and queens of England? Bunches. Those dang Spanish Catholics always trying to marry Elizabeth I ... or sending an armada against England. "Holy War," however, shows you the point of view of the Spanish in all of those situations, which is incredibly interesting and instructive.

The book reads like a novel. Christopher Columbus heads west to get to the East, to India; Vasco da Gama heads south around the tip of Africa and into the Indian Ocean ... no one has ever done that before. Columbus tripped over a few desultory islands and was credited with discovering a continent. Da Gama sailed into the ports of India not just once, but three times, and took the prize of intercepting the flow of spices and treasure that had been flowing out of the East, through Egypt, into the hands of the Venetians in the North of Italy. Now that was no longer the case; eventually, all the merchants of Alexandria had to sell was coffee ... the Portuguese had become the center of European trade and Venice was a power no longer.

But the really important point this book makes clear is that the king of Portugal saw the interruption of trade and his amassing of treasure as a way to send the Knights Templar from Portugal along with thousands of other crusaders to strike through to Jerusalem and free it from the control of Islam, killing thousands of Muslims as a side benefit if they refused to convert.

The point is made that September 11 is merely the latest step in a war between Christianity and Islam that's been going on for a long time. Christopher Columbus doesn't seem that far removed from us in time, but we see his effort on behalf of Spain only as the way America was discovered.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Holy War: How Vasco da Gama's Epic Voyages Turned the Tide in a Centuries-Old Clash of Civilizations, unsurprisingly, charts the story of the Portuguese explorer and his successful charting of a route to India around Africa and the Cape of Good Hope. In some ways it's surprising how Columbus' `discovery' of America so overshadowed this story, especially since both explorers set out in the same decade with the same end in mind, and only Vasco da Gama actually achieved the goal of reaching India and opening up trade routes for spices back to Europe. In another way, it makes sense why Gama's story is lesser known considering how Portugal's overseas empire lasted relatively shortly and how the British and Dutch so thoroughly replaced the Iberians in most of Asia.

Nigel Cliff's premise of the book is less about Vasco da Gama than the rationale for the Age of Discovery. Cliff deftly explains how the Crusades, the Reconquista (a crusade itself), Middle Eastern geopolitics and religious fervor seamlessly nurtured the Portuguese exploration of Africa and Asia. This message gets lost in the story of Columbus' voyage to the Caribbean. It's common knowledge that Columbus was sailing in search of trade routes for spices from Asia. What's lost is the religious, as opposed to purely economic, reasons for this journey and why Portugal and Spain took such a lead in trying to undercut Muslim merchants in Istanbul and Alexandria. Cliff begins his book with a short examination of Muslim history as a prelude to the century-long conflict over the Iberian Peninsula. The book begins to slow its pace in the middle of the fifteenth century as the Christian kingdoms begin to fully wrest power and tenuously cross over the Straight of Gibraltar and into modern-day Morocco.
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